September 17, 2011

Lessons earned

Ethical dilemmae.There’s a hardly a person out there who has not at one time won a prize when their teacher was judging, and I would be willing to bet that of the 99 per cent of pipers and drummers who have been rewarded by their instructor, nearly all of them felt a bit regretful.

I know I have.

1984. I had been living in Scotland, spending my third year of college at the University of Stirling. I had the extreme good fortune to be taken on as a regular pupil by someone of prodigious knowledge and renown strictly for piobaireachd, and another even more renowned person for light music. (Why I didn’t occasionally seek one for the other music, I don’t know, but that’s another story.) I also was lucky enough to access the prodigious knowledge of another prominent person for a few weekends in the fall of 1983.

I had been preparing all year for the Silver Medal. The event in 1984 called for contestants to submit six of their own choice of tunes. I keenly learned up the tunes set for the Gold Medal contests, since it was all good. I got all of these from my main piobaireachd teacher. I’d been playing well enough over the summer to pick up prizes around the games.

But then the judges for the Silver Medal were revealed in July. At the time I was extremely excited to learn that not one, not two, but all three of my teachers would be on the Silver Medal bench at Inverness. Since I believed that the teacher/pupil/judge connection was an acceptable part of the game, I figured that I had hit the jackpot. What great luck!

After getting nothing at Oban, Inverness came around. I was the first to play after the lunch break. I thought that I played as well as I possibly could, which is all you can hope to do. The result was announced, and I was first. All three of them told me later that their decision was unanimous.

While I felt that I deserved the prize, I also felt awkward at the time and ever since about the award. I knew then as I know now that many prizes big and small have been won with teachers judging their students. As far as I know, there’s no rule anywhere against the practice, and only “policies” with some organizations that asks teachers to avoid judging their pupils.

I’ve written before that the practice of teachers judging their students is inevitable, since the best teachers make the most knowledgeable judges and vice-versa. Maybe tellingly, I came up with that thesis when I was actively competing. People often find ways to reconcile such dilemmas in ways that suit us at the time.

I’ve since changed my mind. Teachers judging pupils can and should be avoided. If for nothing else, a teacher should avoid the practice for this fundamental reason: it’s not fair to the pupil. It’s not fair because the student may well have deserved the prize, and probably did, but his or her peers – every one of them – will have at least a shade of doubt.

I don’t for a second think that back in 1984 my teachers were anything but ethical and honest, and my sense of ethics may differ substantially from others. I respect other opinions. I also think that the ethical sense of players, teachers and judges have changed over the last three decades.

But all too often I sense teachers accept judging pupils for what appears to be a selfish reason: to further their own reputation as a teacher via the success of their student. The better the pupil does, the better the instructor appears.

Some players dodge the issue by saying that a judge who’s judging them isn’t really an “instructor” because they see them only periodically, or receive only casual feedback. That may be so, but, as a friend recently pointed out, the player is quick to list the very same person as a “teacher” in their autobiographical sketches.

Some judges dodge the issue with the well-worn contention that, if you prohibit teachers from judging their pupils, there won’t be enough judges to go around. I don’t believe that. It just takes adroit planning and full disclosure. Judges need to tell organizers who they’re teaching, and then let them organize events accordingly.

Competitions are about the competitors, not the judges. Teachers should not put their students in such compromising situations. Ironically, prizes won by students of judges are an injustice to the pupil who needs to be seen to earn prizes fairly, strictly on his or her own merits.

And declining to judge pupils in contests could be one of the most important lessons an instructor can teach.


  1. I see completely where you’re coming from in terms of how it’s not fair on the person whose tutor is judging them. However, on the few occasions my tutor has judged, I feel the opposite. My tutor will judge me more harshly if anything as his pupil, as he was the one who knows exactly how he wants me to intrerpret the music and tiny deviations that could be taken as difference in interpretation or expression by another’s pupil would be ultimately easily picked up. I and the folk that know my tutor know that if I get a prize in a competition, I more than deserved it. He’s not being mean; it’s not fair to ask him to ignore what he already knows exactly how I -should- be playing his setting and interpretation of the tune. I for one feel I get better placings when being judged by other judges for the reason that they can’t before I’ve even started expect a certain setting, expression and flair.

    I don’t think tutors of competitors should be exempt from judging at highland games. However, at the northern meeting and Oban, I think there shouldn’t any more than one judge on the panel who jointly teach a specific competitor, as tutors can only go one way or the other: being a bit too generous or being a bit too harsh and either give them a prize they may not have deserved or deny them a prize they should have been given.

    With that said, I think full well that your tutors as respected judges will have given it to you unanimously because you more than deserve it.

  2. i recall getting into the piobaireachd realm and going for i think my 2nd competition and somebody had said the judge was good and knew his stuff.

    i went up to go check in with the steward and they judge wasn’t there quite yet, as he was taking a break in between competitors [there was still one more ahead of me].

    i waited around to listen to my competition before i went for one more tune up and i noted the judge off behind some shed/hut and he was tuning some piper. he finished the smoke / drones and went and sat down… then the piper walked up to the table…

    … the judge had just tuned the competitor’s drones …

  3. Interesting. In my profession a tutor also being someone’s ‘judge’ would be disclosed by the judge as a ‘booundary issue’ and either that judge would not judge that competition at all, or they would absent themselves from the panel for that competitors performance. On the subject of a judge’s prior knowledge of a player being a good thing (as per comment below)–surely prior knowledge of any competitor shouldn’t come into it, hard though this may be—rather the competition should be judged purely on the situation on the day, with the judges having neutral open minds for all players. Otherwise how can it be fair?

  4. While it’s difficult for the small contests with single man benches, utimately it’s not fair on the pupil as you have said.
    There are too many cases of fine players having won top prizes with the ps of ” aye so and so was judging” despite what may have been a 1st class performance.

  5. Can anyone tell me how a teacher judging a student “in a more harsh light” is any more fair than a teacher judging a student in a favorable way? That argument is absurd. Any judge who thinks that is okay should be chucked off the bench that he or she shouldn’t even be on in the first place!

  6. Good point Andrew. I recently was put in that same situation at Kincardine, 2011. A judge could not make it for what ever reason. i was approached by you and declined given my son and two students, all top ranked soloist for the grade, were to compete. A judge could not be found and the Junior Piob. contest was cancelled. Still waiting on my entry refund form the society by the way. The reason i was so quick to say no was the same thing happened only at Fergus, 2010. It was the Novice Piob, the judge got mixed up and did not make it, I accepted because the winner would end up the Champion supreme Piper. Both my son and a student were ranked even with another piper, winner takes all. My student and son were 2nd and 3rd, another very good young player won the event and the complaints came in after. My father judged me once during the years and he swore never to do it again given all the fuss.Lesson learned the hard way for me, should have taken his word. . Having said that others we all know have played in front of their fathers with little worry or problems. I guess it is really up to judge, the student and what they feel is proper. I would not recomend it given that there is always that thought of “hm, did they or didn’t they really win”.



  7. You have to wonder at those people who try to justify playing for their teachers by trying to make out “my teacher is harder on me”. They are a walking advertisement as to why it just shouldn’t happen; a clear admission that impartiality does not exist in such a situation, and cannot exist; that they, being in a competition with others, are being judged differently from others.

    It is not a question of honesty.

    It beats me why anybody would ever want to win prizes like that anyway.

  8. Well said Colin.

    Though suggest you may have a fair idea as to why people judge or play this game. For a lot of people its ALL about prizes and so you get ’em as you damn well can. Prizes won like this will have no footnotes (i.e. piper X won this prize playing for “teacher-judge” Y) 10, 20, or 100 years in the future. So its all good.

    Maybe an interesting sidelight, the famed pipers-now-judges who are seen to be working their “pupil magic” on the benches seem oblivious to their actions and the chipping away of their hard-earned competitive gravitas. So easy to go from 2 or 3-time Clasp winner to ****.

  9. Colin, I wasn’t attempting to justify playing for the tutor, or promoting it. I was actually basically saying the same thing as you. There’s never any complete impartiality if your tutor is judging you and at the end of the day, I’d much rather prefer a judge who was tutoring no-one in the competion. Sadly, in some (in fact more than some) cases that person who has students of his or her own will be the only one available, willing and able to step up to the task, so is either a case of not playing at all or play for your tutor. I wish it could be so that this never happens, but it’s sadly just not the case.



Forgotten Password?